How one new Indianapolis group wants to turn parents into education advocates

A computer screenshot of EmpowerED Families staff and parent advocates during the group’s Platform Reveal online event on May 18.
Staff and parent leaders of the new local advocacy group EmpowerED Families on May 18 discuss with viewers the group’s priorities. (Screenshot courtesy of EmpowerED Families)

Iris Blanco remembers how frustrating it was to try to enroll her children in school when she first moved to Indianapolis. Now she wants to help other parents. 

“Just even simple things like that, for a lot of people, that’s hard,” Blanco said.

She’s one of eight Black and Latina parent leaders with a newly created group called EmpowerED Families, which hopes to equip families with the knowledge and tools to ensure that their children have the best education possible.

The EmpowerED Families team aims to give people of color in the most underserved Indianapolis Public Schools neighborhoods a voice in their children’s schools — from helping parents understand how to work with teachers when problems come up, to rallying for more funding for their schools. 

“Parents have a say in what we’re doing,” said Ontay Johnson, executive director of EmpowerED Families. Instead of having decisions made for communities of color, Johnson wants those families to drive the discussions.

Johnson, 47, emphasized that the organization is led by local Black and Latino parents. Racial equity is a top priority, and the group will advocate for antiracism training for all educators, culturally responsive teaching practices, more teachers of color, and more diversity in the curriculum.

Since last fall, the organization has met with more than 200 Indianapolis families to hear what they need and what their concerns are. With a $522,000 budget for 2021-22, EmpowerED Families plans to hold training sessions on how to advocate for change. The parent advocates, who are paid a stipend, will serve as liaisons for families who don’t speak English or families navigating special education services.

EmpowerED Families also wants to support parents through workshops on life skills, job searching, and budgeting, to help improve their quality of life, said Johnson, who previously was the executive director for 100 Black Men of Indianapolis. 

The group plans to contact 5,000 people in the next three years. 

Unlike other advocacy organizations such as Stand for Children Indiana and RISE Indy, EmpowerED Families does not plan to contribute to political candidates. But the organization will attend school board meetings and rally at the Statehouse to support policies such as increasing funding for schools that serve mostly Black and Latino children and push for curriculum changes, and will oppose proposals that would hurt children of color.

“We will go to the Statehouse and rally with other families and others that are in this space to fight against whatever that legislation may be,” Johnson said. 

The organization was incubated by The Mind Trust, a politically influential local charter-advocacy group. The Mind Trust has provided $836,000 to launch EmpowerED Families and will give another $300,000 for the upcoming year.

Like The Mind Trust, EmpowerED Families supports school choice and families having the option to pick the best school for their children. It plans to work with parents at traditional district and charter schools, including charter-operated or independent schools in IPS’ innovation network.

While EmpowerED Families will be its own nonprofit, its board is led by an executive of The Mind Trust. Johnson said he plans to continue to count The Mind Trust as a community partner.

“The Mind Trust is doing some great work when it comes to education and being innovative,” Johnson said. He cited the community learning sites The Mind Trust launched during the pandemic, which he said were “huge” in that they supported students who needed somewhere to learn when school buildings were shut down. 

Sunny Reed, a Pike Township parent, attended an online EmpowerED Families launch event in May because she knows Blanco. Reed thinks the group’s priorities, such as helping parents find a school suitable for their children, could be beneficial. But she does have her concerns. Reed said she has seen some parent-focused groups that want to help low-income families lose interest and not stick around for too long. 

“You have to get a buy-in from people who have already been let down or felt abandoned by similar organizations,” said Reed, who has a teenage daughter and two adult children. “I just hope that they keep the families engaged because when everything is new, it’s exciting.”

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